The teenager’s path is a simple one. It is the search for identity and community! As a parent, mentor, or youth pastor, your job is to guide, model, and prepare your child, your student, or your youth for such a journey.
True Guidance Starts with Empathy:
To prepare these teens for their journey, you must be empathetic. Before you can really help them, you must remember what it was like for you. Think back to when you were in 5th or 6th grade and became conscious of yourself as a person and started to be concerned with what people thought of you. Think about your emotions as you became concerned with how people saw you, whether you were smart, pretty, strong, athletic, etc. How scary was that? Especially since these concerns stay with you all the way through to high school. What anxiety did you go through in the pursuit of that identity? Maybe you made some bad decisions or tried to act like something you’re not to gain the approval of others. Perhaps, out of fear, you abandoned childhood friendships or gave into peer pressure to maintain the identity you thought you built yourself. If you can remember how you felt and why you made the decisions you did in those preteen and teen years, you will offer wisdom with empathy.
Remember, they are not physically or bio-chemically developed enough to see through your humanness and logically give you grace. However, if they sense you understand what they are going through, you might have a chance to offer wisdom that they are willing to receive. Remember that ancient wisdom, “speak the truth in love”! The right way is key. You can be right in the wisdom, but you might end up pushing your student away if you approach it in the wrong way.
Tell Your Story:
Now, this can be a little tricky, but it is worth the risk. The challenge for you is to make sure your story is actually relevant to what they are experiencing. If they went through a break-up, then your story should be about a break-up, or if it is about a hard decision, then your story is about facing a hard decision, etc. However, try not to “one-up your student”; it is not a competition of who had it harder, who was more successful, or whose generation was better. It is about connecting emotionally to where they are in the present. Which by the way, to know where they are in the present means you must listen to what they are communicating to you, so you know what story to share. Your story may help the student find a glimmer of hope and a nugget of wisdom that might help them in their situation. Lastly, tell stories of where you failed. Sometimes, as adults, we also paint an image of ourselves in the best possible light, but if we are going to be real and truthful, they need to hear all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. When a student hears that your failure didn’t define you or that you survived the consequence of your bad decision, then they may not fear failure and realize that failure can be a great teacher to learn and grow. If they see, “All have sinned” or make mistakes, this will also help them confide in you about their own struggles, fears and admit their own mistakes.
Know Your Role:
You are a guide, not the traveler, in this journey. Yes, depending on whether you are a parent vs. a mentor or youth pastor, you might have different responsibilities, but overall, you guide this journey. Do not confuse this as being a friend to your student. A friend supports almost blindly and takes emotionally as much as they give. As a peer, it’s good, but it is one of the worst things we can do for their spiritual, mental, and emotional health as a guide. This way of thinking will do almost next to nothing in preparing them for life. A friendship approach with a minor is creepy if you are a mentor or youth pastor. It is emotionally abusive if you are related to them, so stop and get professional help if you do have that philosophy. But I digress: a guide helps the student foresee the difficult challenges set before the student and shows them how to find success. They are direct and honest about the student’s strengths but coach them through their weaknesses and confusion. A guide asks the hard questions and helps them face the areas of their life that need work, but reminds them who they really are and encourages them to hold on to it.
As adults, regardless if you are a parent, mentor, or youth pastor, we love this role of a guide in a student’s life. However, did we earn this position by showing how much we care or are we just authoritative? Did we validate the right to be heard and taken seriously by showing our similar strengths and struggles? Did we do the work to help them discover their true identity and place in the community? Remember, the teenager path is a simple one. It is the search for identity and community! If we are wise in interacting with our students, we will have the privilege of witnessing when they discover what they are called to be.
Pastor Joseph Valenzuela is the Executive/Family Pastor at New Life in Scottsdale, Arizona.